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What’s New for the 2023 Akron Zips?

Year 2 under Joe Moorhead’s leadership begins, and with it, the hope of setting a foundation.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Akron at Tennessee Photo by Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Akron Zips were one of the most intriguing 2-10 teams in the country in 2022.

After three years of languishing in a football desert under Tom Arth, the Akron administration got serious and pulled in the shock hire of Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, one of the most respected coaches in college football.

Moorhead got his career started in Akron, and was a member of the coaching staff which won the Zips’ last MAC title in 2005, so he has familiarity with the on-ground situation. Year 1 for him and his crew was to create an identity and build up good performances to cash in later on in his tenure.

The Zips only won twice, but their performances throughout the season affected the tide of the MAC East race, and the lessons learned will be invaluable moving forward. In the 2022 season, the Zips played in seven games decided by nine or less points, going 1-6 in those efforts. If they can turn those close losses into close wins in 2023, the Zips will be a team to consider more seriously in the future.

All said, though, the road is still a long one to plow before they can till up results, and there will be a lot to address in both spring and fall camps prior to the start of the season.

We walk through the major three concerns below:

All hands on deck in the trenches

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Western Michigan at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The trenches, the trenches, the trenches.

Perhaps the most important part for any football program who wants to be taken seriously, the offensive and defensive lines an determine the pace of play on both sides of the ball. This is something the coaching staff understands, as they considerably reshuffled both lines last season to shake things up and find some hidden gems.

The issue for the staff is that now a lot of their experienced linemen, including 2021 starter Xavior Gray (Liberty), have transferred out of the program, which could force the Zips to rely on relative youngsters if one of the new starters goes down. Overall, 10 linemen left the program, five on each side, with four linemen (two on each side) coming in to try and replace the outgoing talent.

The good news for the Zips is their three of their best starting offensive linemen from last season return, including center Tony Georges. That will at least help any newcomers to get acquainted and shore up a line which assisted in creating the 18th-best passing offense in the country last season. (Though, there’s still a lot of work to do in the run game, where they finished 125th... more on that in a bit.)

Joel Rodriguez has been assigned to coach the offensive line after teaching running backs in 2022. He’s found success with OL in the past at Fordham and Bryant in the FCS level, and played the position at both Miami [FL] and in the NFL (Tennessee and Berlin).

The defensive line is a work-in-progress, with zero returning starters, lots of missing depth, and no obvious candidates aside from Tennessee State transfer Terray Jones (37 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks in 2022), who reportedly had an impressive spring camp. Victor Jones and Zach Morton will both be missed sorely at the ends and Bryce Wilson will be missed inside early on as the new names get acquainted.

It’s likely Akron is on the hunt for more talent in the portal prior to fall camps, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find new names to get to know come August.

2022 featured an average-to-languid defense, finishing 91st in total defense and 117th in scoring defense, an indication they were fairly unlucky with keeping teams out of the endzone but were generally okay otherwise. Their biggest chance for regression is in the rushing stats (162.4 yards per game, 81st in the country), as the middle of the defense will experience a complete shuffle.

New hire Nyheem Wartman-White was brought on from FCS power New Hampshire to improve the defensive line a year removed from getting two of his pupils named to the FCS All-American list, and will have his work cut out for him trying to improve this newbie line.

Another year, another shuffle of running backs

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Akron has been a perpetual running back transaction machine over the last few years as the program has struggled to find a true all-downs back to lead the way.

Last season saw Cam Wiley (Minnesota) and Clyde Price III (Kansas State) both transfer in, but this offseason saw Wiley and a few other depth backs (Dae’Vontay Latimer, Anthony Stallworth and Anthony Williams Jr.) also leave the program. This leaves the Zips with just four running backs on the spring ball roster.

The Zips have reportedly secured the services of Northwestern/Arizona running back Drake Anderson (1,311 yards, six touchdowns in five seasons), though he isn’t currently listed on the roster, but the big name lots of college prognosticators have circled is Lorenzo Lingard Jr., a former four-star prospect who was Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017.

Lingard struggled to find the field at both Miami [FL] and Florida, with just 43 carries since 2018, but he has decent size at six-foot, 205 lbs. and his speed should translate well at this level of college ball. If he can find his potential, it would immediately elevate the Zips’ running game, which was one of the country’s worst in 2022 (89.6 yards per game.)

Some experienced and familiar names do come back to the fold, as Price III (99 rushes, 309 yards, seven rushing touchdowns; 31 receptions, 139 yards, one receiving touchdown) and Blake Hester (65 rushes, 274 yards, two touchdowns in 2021) will provide depth and competition in camps.

There’s only one direction for the running back room to go in 2023 considering last season’s struggles, but even if the line takes awhile to form up, there’s enough raw talent in the backfield to improve on their legs alone.

Looking for a successor at linebacker

NCAA Football: Akron at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Bubba Arslanian is no longer patrolling the middle of the defense in Akron, opting to pursue a professional career after spring camps. It was a shock in MAC circles, as he had previously been granted a seventh season of eligibility and was coming off perhaps his best season as a Zip in 2022, where he finished with first-team all-MAC honors after a 132-tackle campaign which included 10.5 tackles-for-loss and an interception.

Arslanian was a tackling machine for the Zips, finishing his career with 385 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, six sacks, and two forced fumbles over six seasons (with his only major injury time coming in 2021.) His leadership and perseverance was also notable, having played under an incredible three head coaches and six position coaches in his tenure at Akron.

So now comes the unenviable task of replacing a legend.

A successor is still unsettled for now; Akron also lost Jeslord Boateng (who was considered the best in-house candidate) to Louisiana Tech in the portal and Tim Terry Jr. exhausted his eligibility, leaving the linebackers room pretty barren for experience. The Zips did bring in two linebackers via the transfer portal in true freshman Ridge Howard (Northern Illinois) and graduate transfer Shammond Cooper (Illinois), but as of publication, they are not featured on the spring roster, making them likely fall camp additions.

Andrew Behm (63 tackles, one sack, one fumble return) is the on-roster name to watch for in the middle with the departure of Boateng, with Antavious Fish (17 tackles, two sacks) the favorite to push amongst the bevy of linebackers, but considering Akron’s general defensive makeup, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they rolled with more three-safety or nickel sets and kept it to two interior backers in 2023.

Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Tim Tibesar will have another chance to work his magic after helping Arslanian achieve a career-best season in 2022, and the hope if they can find someone to maintain that level of production in 2023— or at least help maintain fits until they find that person.

This is the first in a series of Akron football previews, with our next piece addressing offensive skill positions. Please look forward to that!

Akron’s season kicks off Saturday, September 2nd at 2 p.m. Eastern time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they are set to play the Temple Owls.